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by brianorndorf

"One ginger to rule them all"
2 stars

“Jolene” is chunk of old-fashioned American storytelling, adapted from a short story by E.L. Doctorow. Crossing the country detailing the swelling woe of a redhead and her failure to find uncontaminated love in the world, the film attempts to spread the feeling of a life lived across a widescreen environment, working out the complex mechanics of a tragedy in two hours, deploying a supporting cast of familiar faces to help make the violations stick. Cruelly, the display of sorrow never takes command, with most of the film an unsatisfactory soap opera that never seizes an illuminating essence.

Orphaned at a young age, Jolene (Jessica Chastain) has been hunting for something to fill the hole in her heart. Unfortunately, comfort arrives in the form of lonely and sick suitors who yearn to possess what they perceive to be an angelic soul. Starting at the age of 15, Jolene embarks on a decade-long education, greeting a series of lovers including her uncle Phil (Dermot Mulroney), drug addict artist Coco (Rupert Friend), mental hospital guard Cindy (Frances Fisher), Las Vegas mobster Sal (Chazz Palminteri), and Brad (Michael Vartan), a privileged Christian with a penchant for anal sex and domestic abuse. Weary, but determined to survive, Jolene wanders around the country looking to find herself, employing art as her voice during extraordinarily dark times.

“Jolene” (shot way back in 2006) feels yanked from a literary source, with its assembly of sin, violence, and broad characters. Director Dan Ireland (“Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont”) does an commendable job retaining the feel of the written word throughout his motion picture, sending the protagonist out into a cold, uncaring world where romance and stability aren’t as easy to achieve as she expects. Jolene’s an archetypal tumbleweed character, a naive ginger with intoxicating pink parts she barely understands, thrown into situations beyond her control. She’s a seemingly innocent object of lust and calm to these men and women who pursue her, though they all disappoint in the end, pushing her to the next adventure in another state. The episodic, dog-eared quality of the filmmaking is felt, but establishing an emotional connection to anything on-screen is a real problem for the production.

You see, Jolene is troubled, beaten, and broken, and while she’s under no obligation to be a likable human being, one gets the feeling that Ireland is itching to have viewers fall in love with the character. Chastain’s wide-eyed performance goes a long way in creating vivid feelings of passion and disappointment, with the young woman subjected to numerous horrors, but Jolene is a bit of a blank slate. Actually, she’s borderline toxic. The feature never quite grasps the morality churning inside the woman, who’s trapped in one-dimensional survival mode throughout the entire picture, with the screenplay failing to flesh out her perspective on the acts of prostitution, stripping, and perversion that seemingly define her life. Sure, it’s a story of lifelong adversity working to a final stand of personal ownership, but something more substantial than Chastain’s cherry-topped moxie would’ve been welcome, especially within a narrative of dark turns and excruciating realizations. Instead of honest reflection, Ireland is all too quick to flip on the melodrama afterburners, stripping the horror out of Jolene’s trials.

Despite a colorful cast and Chastain’s persistent glow, “Jolene” doesn’t add up to much by the end credits, with the main character a maddening blur from start to finish. The film seems ready to engage viewers as a profound road trip, heaving with indignities and miracles, shot with anamorphic luster. Yet, the feature ends with a Lifetime Movie whimper, keeping Jolene’s world awkwardly insignificant and often quite dull.

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originally posted: 05/01/11 01:02:53
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  29-Oct-2010 (R)
  DVD: 26-Apr-2011



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